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Susan Sontag

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Susan Sontag (January 16, 1933 – December 28, 2004) was a well-known American essayist, novelist, intellectual, filmmaker and activist.


Sontag, originally named Susan Rosenblatt, was born in New York City to Jack Rosenblatt and Mildred Jacobsen, (Jewish-Americans). Her father ran a fur trading business in China, where he died of tuberculosis when Susan was five years old. Seven years later, her mother married Nathan Sontag, at which point Susan and her sister Judith took their stepfather's surname although they were never formally adopted.

Sontag grew up in Tucson, Arizona and, later, in Los Angeles, where she graduated from North Hollywood High School at the age of 15. She began her undergraduate studies at Berkeley, but transferred to the University of Chicago, where she graduated with a B.A. She did graduate work in philosophy, literature, and theology at Harvard, St Anne's College, Oxford and the Sorbonne.

At 17, while at Chicago, Sontag married Philip Rieff, following a ten-day courtship. Sontag and Rieff were married for eight years, divorcing in 1958. The couple had a son, David Rieff, who later became his mother's editor at Farrar, Straus and Giroux and subsequently a writer.

The publication of Against Interpretation (1966), accompanied by a striking dust-jacket photo taken by the photographer Peter Hujar, helped establish Sontag's reputation as "the Dark Lady of American Letters." No account of her hold on her generation can omit the power of her physical presence on a room full of New York literati: movie stars like Woody Allen, philosophers like Arthur Danto, and politicians like Mayor John Lindsay vied to know her. In the movie "Bull Durham," her work was used as a touchstone of sexual savoir-faire. (See below.)

She avoided, in her prime, all pigeon holes. Like Jane Fonda, she went to Hanoi, but wrote of the experience with distaste, in a foreshadowing of her famous rebuke of Eastern European Communist countries as "fascism with a human face."

Sontag died in New York City on December 28, 2004, aged 71, from complications of myelodysplastic syndrome evolving into acute myelogenous leukemia. The MDS was likely a result of the chemotherapy and radiation treatment she received three decades earlier when she was diagnosed with advanced breast cancer and a rare form of uterine cancer. She is buried in Montparnasse cemetery, in Paris, France.[1]

Work Edit

Sontag's literary career began and ended with works of fiction. At age 30, she published an experimental novel called The Benefactor (1963), following it four years later with Death Kit (1967). Despite a relatively small output in the genre, Sontag thought of herself principally as a novelist and writer of fiction. Her short story "The Way We Live Now" was published to great acclaim on November 26, 1986 in The New Yorker. Written in an experimental narrative style, it remains a key text on the AIDS epidemic. She achieved late popular success as a best selling novelist with The Volcano Lover (1992), and at age 67 published her final novel In America (2000). The last two novels were set in the past which Sontag had said gave her greater freedom to write in the polyphonic voice.

It was as an essayist, however, that Sontag gained early and enduring fame and notoriety. Sontag wrote frequently about the intersection of high and low art. Her celebrated 1964 essay "Notes on 'Camp'" examined an alternative sensibility to seriousness and comedy, gesturing to the "so bad it's good" concept in popular culture for the first time. She championed European writers such as Walter Benjamin, Roland Barthes, Antonin Artaud, and W. G. Sebald, along with some Americans such as Maria Irene Fornes. Over the course of several decades she would turn her attention to novels, film and photography. In several books, she wrote about cultural attitudes toward illness. Her final nonfiction work Regarding the Pain of Others re-examined art and photography from a moral standpoint, speaking of how the media affects culture's views of conflict.

Activism Edit


In 1989 Sontag was the President of PEN American Center, the main U.S. branch of the International PEN writer's organization, at the time that Iranian leader Ayatollah Khomeini issued a fatwa (in this instance a death sentence) against writer Salman Rushdie after the publication of his novel The Satanic Verses, which was perceived as blasphemous by Islamic fundamentalists. Her uncompromising support of Rushdie was critical in rallying American writers to his cause.

A few years later, Sontag gained attention for directing Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot during the nearly four-year Siege of Sarajevo. Early in that conflict, Sontag referred to the Serbian invasion and massacre in Bosnia as the "Spanish Civil War of our time" and sparked controversy among U.S. leftists for openly advocating for U.S. and European military intervention. Sontag lived in Sarajevo for many months of the Sarajevo siege.

Controversies Edit

Sontag drew fire for writing that "Mozart, Pascal, Boolean algebra, Shakespeare, parliamentary government, baroque churches, Newton, the emancipation of women, Kant, Balanchine ballets, et al. don't redeem what this particular civilization has wrought upon the world. The white race is the cancer of human history." (Partisan Review, Winter 1967, p. 57.) ([2]) Sontag later offered an ironic apology for the remark, saying it was insensitive to cancer victims.

In a well-circulated essay entitled "Sontag, Bloody Sontag," Camille Paglia describes her initial admiration for Sontag and her subsequent disillusionment and evisceration of the author. Paglia wrote,

Sontag's cool exile was a disaster for the American's women's movement. Only a woman of her prestige could have performed the necessary critique and debunking of the first instant-canon feminist screeds, such as those of Kate Millett or Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar, whose middlebrow mediocrity crippled women's studies from the start. No patriarchal villains held Sontag back; her failures are her own.

Paglia proceeds to detail a series of vituperations toward Sontag, including Harold Bloom's comment on Paglia's doctoral dissertation of "Mere Sontagisme!" which "had become synonymous with a shallow kind of hip posturing." Paglia also describes Sontag as a "sanctimonious moralist of the old-guard literary world", and tells of Sontag's visit to Bennington, in which she arrived hours late, ignored the agreed upon topic of the event, and made an incessant series of ridiculous demands.

Sontag was criticized in 1968 for visiting Hanoi, the capital of North Vietnam, during the Vietnam war.

Sontag sparked controversy for her remarks in The New Yorker (September 24, 2001) about the immediate aftermath of the September 11th, 2001 attacks. Sontag wrote:

"Where is the acknowledgment that this was not a 'cowardly' attack on 'civilization' or 'liberty' or 'humanity' or 'the free world' but an attack on the world's self-proclaimed superpower, undertaken as a consequence of specific American alliances and actions? How many citizens are aware of the ongoing American bombing of Iraq? And if the word "cowardly" is to be used, it might be more aptly applied to those who kill from beyond the range of retaliation, high in the sky, than to those willing to die themselves in order to kill others. In the matter of courage (a morally neutral virtue): Whatever may be said of the perpetrators of Tuesday's slaughter, they were not cowards."[3]

Perhaps the most well-known and biting critique of Sontag was in the film Bull Durham by the character Crash Davis (Kevin Costner), written and directed by Ron Shelton: "I believe in the soul, the cock, the pussy, the small of a woman's back, the hanging curve ball, high fiber, good scotch, that the novels of Susan Sontag are self-indulgent, overrated crap..."


Sontag had committed relationships with photographer Annie Leibovitz, choreographer Lucinda Childs, writer Maria Irene Fornes, and other women.[4]

In an interview in the Guardian (UK) in 2000 (see [5]), she was quite open about her bisexuality:

"Shall I tell you about getting older?", she says, and she is laughing. "When you get older, 45 plus, men stop fancying you. Or put it another way, the men I fancy don't fancy me. I want a young man. I love beauty. So what's new?" She says she has been in love seven times in her life, which seems quite a lot. "No, hang on," she says. "Actually, it's nine. Five women, four men."

Many of Sontag's obituaries fail to mention her significant same-sex relationships, most notably with photographer Annie Leibovitz. This was widely reported in Andrew Sullivan's blog (see [6], [7], [8]) and the alternative press [9]. In response to this criticism, The New York Times' Public Editor, Daniel Okrent, defended the newspaper's obituary, stating that at the time of Sontag's death, a reporter could make no independent verification of her romantic relationship with Leibovitz (despite attempts to do so). After Sontag's death, Newsweek published an article about Leibovitz that made clear reference to her decade-plus relationship with Sontag, stating: "The two first met in the late '80s, when Leibovitz photographed her for a book jacket. They never lived together, though they each had an apartment within view of the other's."[1]

Some gay and lesbian authors have criticized Sontag for staying "in the closet."

Sontag was quoted by Editor-in-Chief Brendan Lemon of Out magazine as saying "I grew up in a time when the modus operandi was the 'open secret'. I'm used to that, and quite OK with it. Intellectually, I know why I haven't spoken more about my sexuality, but I do wonder if I haven't repressed something there to my detriment. … Maybe I could have given comfort to some people if I had dealt with the subject of my private sexuality more, but it's never been my prime mission to give comfort, unless somebody's in drastic need. I'd rather give pleasure, or shake things up."

Works Edit

Fiction Edit

Plays Edit

  • (1991) "A Parsifal" [one-act play, first published in _Antaeus_ 67 (1991): 180-185.]
  • (1993) Alice in Bed Library of congress catalog card number 93-71280
  • (1999) "Lady from the Sea" [adaptation of Henrik Ibsen's play of the same name; first published in _Theater_ 29.1 (1999): 89-91.]

Nonfiction Edit

Collections of essays Edit

Sontag has also published nonfiction essays in The New Yorker, The New York Review of Books, Times Literary Supplement, The Nation, Granta, Partisan Review and the London Review of Books.

Monographs Edit

Other Edit

The first volume of Sontag's journals are expected to be pubished in 2008 or 2009. [10]

Some Books and articles on Susan Sontag Edit

  • The Din in the Head. Essays by Cynthia Ozick ISBN-13: 978-0-618-47050-1 See Forward: On Discord and Desire.
  • Conversations with Susan Sontag. Edited by Leland Poague ISBN 0-87805-833-8 Susan Sontag in her own words.

Awards and honors Edit

  • 2001: Was awarded the Jerusalem Prize, which is awarded every two years to a writer whose work explores the freedom of the individual in society.
  • 2002: Received her second George Polk Award, for Cultural Criticism for "Looking at War," in The New Yorker
  • 2004: Two days after her death, the mayor of Sarajevo announced the city would name a street after her, calling her an "author and a humanist who actively participated in the creation of the history of Sarajevo and Bosnia."

External links Edit

Wikiquote has a collection of quotations related to:



References Edit

  1. Cathleen McGuigan, "Through Her Lens", Newsweek, 2 October 2006.

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